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Warner Home Video presents
Commander James Ferraday: Those men up there must be pretty important.
DVD ReviewWhen Warner Home Video and Turner Classic Movies posted a list of titles that film buffs could chose from to be released on DVD, I felt confident that Erich von Stroheim's epic Greed would make the final cut. Sadly, it was knocked out by such lackluster Hollywood yarns as Ivanhoe. The rest of the selections made, however, were fantastic and I highly recommend them to everyone. The only title chosen by the fans that I had not seen was Ice Station Zebra, the movie that Howard Hughes had play on his TV station over 100 times. My friends all seem to like it, so I was enthusiastic to see if this Cold War adventure merits its selection.
Ice Station Zebra is a fantastic tale of Russian, American, and British operations to retrieve valuable information from the British base called Ice Station Zebra at the North Pole. Something has gone terribly wrong at there, and the men are dying. Unfortunately, the arctic is undergoing a terrible snowstorm and an air rescue mission is impossible (this is probably why in real life there aren't major surveillance bases in such remote locations, but for the sake of movie entertainment this is an engaging premise). U.S. Navy Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) is commissioned with the task of rescuing the men at Ice Station Zebra, but his primary objective is to deliver a special passenger to the base. David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) of British intelligence joins Ferraday's submarine crew, but his reasons for being there aren't entirely known. Things become even more problematic when two new guests are airdropped onto the sub—U.S. Marine Captain Anders (Jim Brown) and the anti-Russian Russian, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine)—much to the suspicion of Ferraday and Jones.
It's an alluring, if not original, premise for a Cold War adventure drama. The first half is a fairly standard submarine movie, complete with an unknown saboteur and a scene where the sub nearly drowns. I don't say this in a condescending way, because it's actually a rather intelligent film. There's good reason to suspect Jones, Vaslov, or Captain Anders of being a Russian spy, and the added bonus of not knowing what exactly Jones' mission is about. However, things take a radical turn after Ferraday's crew reaches the station and things get riveted up when the true nature of Jones' mission is revealed and the threat of Russian paratroopers arises. Thankfully, these two halves of the film are separated by an intermission, because their tone is so different it is almost like watching two movies.
Douglas Heyes' script, from the book by Alistair MacLean and the screen story by Harry Julian Fink, is well paced and takes enough time to develop its characters in stages that it elevates this above a James Bond movie in terms of substance, but the film as a whole does not have the same kind of adrenaline as those classic Sean Connery 007 entries. Part of this might be a result of its setting. Submarine movies are fantastic when done wel, but never scream excitement due to the claustrophobic sets. The craftsmanship here, especially Michel Legrand's score and Daniel L. Fapp's cinematography, are worthy of note. They work to create an atmosphere that shifts without any oddness between all-out action story and suspense-driven thriller. Undoubtedly, director John Sturges and his editor, Ferris Webster, also help to achieve this effect. Additionally, despite some of the special effects being dated, the matte paintings and opening shot of a satellite in space are quite impressive.
Where the film falls short is in its acting. I've never been a fan of Rock Hudson (watching him act is similar to watching a brick wall); for the most part his performance of Commander Ferraday is fitting, since submarine captains tend to be reserved and stone faced. However, in a few key scenes with Jones and Vaslov, Hudson's performance feels too forced and ultimately flat. Even worse, however, is Ernest Borgnine. Hollywood has a long history of performances with bad Russian accents, but Borgnine's work here is a new low. I wouldn't have known that Vaslov was Russian if it wasn't for the fact that the script makes a point of it. The only standout work here comes from McGoohan, whose delivery of lines is both dastardly and charming—hinting at just a bit of sneakery that keeps the audience in the dark about Jones' true intentions.
So does Ice Station Zebra deserve its prestigious selection in Warner's DVD lineup? Sure. It's a fine yarn but for the acting, and well worth a viewing. It's been surpassed by other Cold War adventures, such as The Hunt for Red October, but in many ways this is preferable to the James Bond franchise. It's good fun and doesn't insult your intelligence.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The original 2.20:1 Super Panavision 70 photography is given a fantastic transfer. Depth is excellent, creating a strong filmlike look in the image. Edge enhancement is nonexistent, colors are strong, detail is sharp, and blacks look gorgeous. There are a few instances of print defects, but they are not worth complaining about. A few shots of the sub under water have some noticeable dirt, which is about the only flaw with this transfer. Excellent work.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Despite the presence of the film's overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exits music, some purists will be displeased by the omission of the movie's original sound mix. The newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is not extremely active or dynamic, but it is an engaging listen. Legrand's score occupies all of the speakers, giving a nice presentation of the old Hollywood method of scoring a picture. Some sound effects also enter into the surround speakers, but there is no directionality and barely any separation across the front soundstage. Dialogue come through cleanly and there are no instances of static, crackling, or hissing on the track. It's not a lively 5.1 mix, but the source material doesn't seem to lend itself to one.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Aviator, Bad Day at Black Rock, Giant, Where Eagles Dare
Layers Switch: 01h:14m:15s
Extras Review: Prior to the main menu appearing, the theatrical teaser for Martin Scorsese's The Aviator appears on screen in nonanamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. It plays on its own, but there are four other trailers that can be accessed from the special features menu. The trailers for Bad Day at Black Rock, Giant, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare can be played either separately or together. Each of them, but for Giant, is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The only other supplemental on this disc is the featurette The Man Who Makes a Difference (07m:12s). It centers around John Stevens, the second unit photographer on Ice Station Zebra. This is an old promotional piece for the movie, but it actually has some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of Stevens getting different types of shots, so it's better than the usual promo fluff. Nonetheless, extras are awfully sparse on this release.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsWarner continues its fine work of film restoration and preservation with its release of Ice Station Zebra. Though this is not an essential component to American film, it's a good example of Hollywood craftsmanship and provides solid entertainment. The picture is lovingly restored and the new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a delight. It would be nice to have some more extras than are provided here, but otherwise this is a release that should not disappoint.
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